The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.
The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.
How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.
The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).
In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.
For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.
Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.
In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).
Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.
• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.
• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.
• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.
• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.
• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.
Another public hearing on what, if anything, to do with Needmore Road has been scheduled for February, this time in Macon County.
An exact date and location hasn’t been announced.
The 3.3 miles of gravel, single-lane road traverses Macon and Swain counties, cutting through the protected Needmore Game Lands. The 4,400-acre tract was protected from development after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it by raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.
State Department of Transportation in September held a public hearing in Swain County. That meeting fulfilled state-mandated legal requirements regarding public involvement. About 100 people attended, including many from Macon County. They turned out mainly to protest the transportation department’s proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.
The work would cost $13.1 million.
This is the only stretch of Needmore Road not previously paved. The road parallels the Little Tennessee River and can provide motorists a more direct route between counties than the motion sickness inducing N.C. 28, a curvy two-lane highway across the river.
Environmentalists as a whole do support some kind of paving or capping, because they believe sediment from the gravel road is causing harm to the river’s fragile and rare ecosystem. But what has been proposed, they say, is too extensive. Additionally, the work would require the transportation department to blaze through acid-producing rock, posing a significant danger to the Little Tennessee River if something went wrong.
“It will be very important for people to attend this meeting,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, a Macon County-based group dedicated to protecting just what the name indicates. “Many residents and all of the (outside) agencies involved in this project do not support the ideas of the full-blown widening and paving project.”
There are, however, residents in the Needmore community who just as vigorously do support the transportation department’s proposal, in all its grandiosity. They have cited safety concerns and difficulty traveling to and from their homes as reasons why the road needs work.
Macon County commissioners requested a public hearing be held in their county, saying they wanted to ensure residents there had ample opportunities to weigh-in on the issue.
Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said this week the decision by transportation department officials indicated the state agency is sensitive and responsive to residents’ desires.
It’s a dizzying prospect, but a group looking at future traffic patterns and demands in Macon County is considering including as many as four roundabouts in a recommendation to county and town leaders.
Additionally, Macon County’s second roundabout is being built as part of the Siler Road project, now under way. There is a min-roundabout (perhaps a practice one?) already built near the county library. This means Macon County residents and visitors could have as many as six circular routes to navigate when all is said and done.
The $6.8 million Siler Road project will provide additional access to the Macon County campus of Southwestern Community College and to the county library.
The Macon County Transportation Steering Committee has suggested using roundabouts at U.S. 441 Business and Maple Street, and at three intersections: Wayah and Porter streets, Wells Grove and Clarks Chapel roads and Depot and Wayah streets.
The roundabouts are simply possibilities and are open to debate and discussion, said Ryan Sherby, the rural planning organization coordinator for Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties.
The transportation steering committee is trying to decide what best to do about traffic in “areas of concern” in Macon County that were identified by the state Department of Transportation. Members will make a final recommendation to county commissioners and elected leaders in Franklin and Highlands.
Sherby said the roundabouts and other preliminary recommendations will be reviewed — and he hopes something approved — during a meeting toward the end of the month. A workshop for the public will be held in January, he said.
“There are times when a roundabout might be an appropriate intersection treatment as opposed to a signalized intersection, when considering capacity and safety,” Sherby said. “Although, on a cost comparison, lots of factors come into play such as utility relocations and potential additional right-of-way costs.”
Macon County Manager Jack Horton previously worked in Haywood County as county manager. There are now two roundabouts in Haywood, but when Horton was serving as manager the very prospect of what one resident dubbed “dummy circles” being built sparked a minor brouhaha.
Today, as Horton recently noted, very few complaints about the roundabouts are heard in Haywood County. And, they seem to perform exactly as proponents promised, safely and efficiently moving traffic through two busy intersections.
Macon County Transit Director Kim Angel raised concerns to her fellow steering committee members about the elderly population in Macon County — and this county is, in terms of median age, one of the “oldest” in North Carolina — being able to successfully round-the-roundabouts.
In a follow-up conversation this week, she reiterated those concerns, saying she was most troubled by the possibility of a roundabout near the county’s senior center, where Franklin High School is also located.
As the transportation committee works on figuring traffic needs through 2035, one potential hotspot is being worked into plans: Traffic changes from the new Wal-Mart Super Center planned for the intersection of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads.
Luckily, “(the project) surfaced during the process,” Sherby said, adding that transportation department officials have shared their traffic plans concerning the new Wal-Mart with the committee.
Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.
Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.
The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.
There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”
The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.
Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.
Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.
The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.
“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”
But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.
Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.
In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.
“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.
What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.
They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.
That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.
The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?
Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.
Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:
• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.
• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.
• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.
• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.
• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.
• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.
Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.
Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.
One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.
“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”
If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:
• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.
• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.
• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.
• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.
• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.
• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.
• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.
Interested? Then learn more at http://wnc.us/smartroads.
N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.
There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.
N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.
SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation
WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.
WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.
WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.
WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.
More than 100 people attended last week’s public hearing on a state Department of Transportation proposal to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of road that cuts through the Needmore Game Lands and parallels the Little Tennessee River.
The crowd included environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, residents of the Needmore community and several reporters. There were about 15 representatives of the transportation department, plus regulatory officials from other agencies.
The comments were as varied as the people attending: endorsements of the transportation department’s proposal to widen the gravel one-lane road to two lanes at a cost of $13.1 million, and questions about the overall need for such a large-scale project in an environmentally sensitive setting. About 25 people spoke publicly.
Swain County resident John Herrin spoke in support, citing economic benefits to the two counties involved, Macon and Swain.
“You are looking at an improvement that will bring a substantial value to the counties,” he said. “Both of them.”
Others, including Mike Clampitt of Toot Hollow Road in Bryson City, pointed to rescue workers’ possible need for an alternative route to N.C. 28 during emergencies as the reason they supported the transportation department’s proposal. N.C. 28 parallels Needmore Road, but on the opposite side of the Little Tennessee River. N.C. 28 is a paved, two-lane highway.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith also talked about possible emergency-response needs, plus described an overall faith in the state’s Department of Transportation ability to make the best decision for all involved.
“I’ll support anything DOT thinks they need. They are the experts,” Monteith said.
Others, however, weren’t persuaded, or as trusting.
“This is a resource that is not replaceable,” Macon County resident Richard Kennedy said in opposition to the project.
Kennedy, a motorcycle rider himself, warned that an improved Needmore Road would attract scads of motorcyclists, and that “people will get hurt on it.”
Western North Carolina in recent years has become something of a Mecca for motorcyclists, particularly a stretch of highway along U.S. 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon in neighboring Graham County.
Cheryl Taylor, who lives along a paved section of Needmore Road, warned her fellow fourth, fifth and so on generations of Swain County-rooted residents (several cited their antecedents prior to speaking; Taylor, as it happens, is fifth generation) that “we can’t get this back” if the area is damaged.
She characterized the transportation department’s plan as “drastic” and “invasive.”
“I don’t want to see it changed,” said Taylor, who was part of a massive campaign to save the 4,400-acre Needmore tract from development about eight or so years ago. The effort, involving a coalition of groups and individuals who are often at odds, saw $19 million raised in the form of private donations and grants. Duke Power, which owned the land, had intended to sell it off for development.
Along with many of the speakers, Taylor did endorse some improvement measures. She spoke in favor of paving and widening.
Ron Allen, who lives on Wagon Wheel Drive in Swain County, like Taylor spoke in favor of a middle way — do some improvements, but compromise and not go to the lengths proposed by the transportation department.
“Significant improvements can be had for less,” Allen said.
Bill Crawford, who lives in Macon County and is a member of WNC Alliance, said the environmental group is opposed to the plan proposed by the transportation department. Other environmental groups also have come out against the plan.
There is still no word on whether the transportation department will honor a request by the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Those county leaders want a public hearing held in Macon. The one last week was held in Swain County. The crowd seemed representative of both counties when a hold-up-your-hand count was requested.
State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worries about public reaction, documents on file at the state Department of Transportation show.
“As I had mentioned earlier, I am concerned with the controversy surrounding this project,” Tim W. Savidge, who worked in the transportation department’s environmental unit, warned District Engineer Joel Setzer in a letter dated Sept. 2, 1997. Setzer now serves this region as the transportation department’s top leader and decision maker.
In a required transportation department checklist, the district engineer — who surfaces in the documents then and today as a driving force behind the project — indicated at about this same time that he did not believe construction work to the road would be controversial.
Savidge’s warning, however, proved prescient.
In the past few weeks, environmental advocates and more mainstream voices — longtime residents living near the community, among others — have spoken out against the transportation department proposal to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. The state wants to take the road to more than 30 feet across to accommodate lanes plus shoulders.
If done at the level currently endorsed, construction would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed by construction.
The documents reveal that even transportation department officials who favored extensive work to Needmore Road have questioned what is now being proposed. One internal memorandum baldly stated that it wasn’t feasible: from an economic standpoint or an environmental one.
The proposal to “improve” this 3.3-mile stretch of gravel road in Macon and Swain counties sparked concerns because it runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. Also, the project comes with a steep price tag during a time of economic constraints: $13.1 million.
The state Wildlife Resources Commission started managing the Needmore tract about eight years ago after a coalition of hunters, environmentalists and residents rescued the land from development. This required the loosely bound group to raise $19 million to pay Duke Power for the property, which was done through a combination of funding sources, such as private donations and grants. The transportation department also chipped in money toward the rescue.
On April 16, 1998, the Wildlife Resources Commission noted in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the overall importance of the area:
“This reach of the Little Tennessee River, from a biological diversity perspective, is perhaps the most significant habitat in Western North Carolina,” Mark S. Davis, mountain region coordinator, wrote. “The (wildlife commission) is concerned about potential project impacts to three federally listed aquatic species … as well as other state listed aquatic species.
“In addition, the Little Tennessee River from the Georgia/North Carolina state line downstream to Fontana Reservoir is classified as critical habitat for the spotfin chub. This area also supports an excellent smallmouth bass population as well as other game and non-game fish species and provides habitat for several wildlife species such as river otter, wood ducks and herons.”
Davis said paving Needmore Road could help reduce sedimentation into the river. Area environmentalists also have endorsed this view, though they oppose the scale of construction proposed by transportation department officials.
Early on, the transportation department vigorously argued against exposing “hot rock.” A memorandum dated July 26, 1999, in which engineers advocated for widening the road toward the river rather than cutting into the bank on the uphill side, spelled out exactly why they considered the current proposal a bad idea.
“According to the geotechnical unit, the rock formations along Needmore Road are of the type known to produce acidic runoff when exposed to weathering,” District Engineer C.R. Styles wrote.
“The cost associated with treating and disposing of 26,000 cubic yards of this ‘hot rock’ would be over $1 million. Also of great concern, are the adverse effects the exposed rock cut could pose to the environment. In order to minimize the potential effects, the rock cut and adjacent ditch line would have to be treated to neutralize the acid. The costs associated with these treatments would be approximately $10,000 initially, and $5,000 per year for the next five to 10 years.
“The total estimated cost to construct this 1,000-foot section of Needmore Road by widening away from the river is well in excess of a million dollars (app. $1.3 million). By comparison, the average cost to construct secondary roads in this area is $200,000 per mile. Therefore, from an economic standpoint, this design isn’t feasible. Also, from an environmental standpoint, this design could have a detrimental effect on the Little Tennessee River ecosystem for many years to come,” Styles wrote.
However, after other regulatory agencies ruled out the possibility of encroaching toward the Little Tennessee River, the transportation department embraced the idea they’d once so vigorously opposed.
The change in position is particularly evident in this Oct. 14, 2008, transportation-department memorandum, written following a meeting where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about ‘hot rock.’
“NCDOT responded that the acidic levels of the rock on this project were very low. With the levels present, runoff from them would not be considered a ‘hot runoff.’ Leaching from freshly exposed surfaces are not likely to pose a long-term problem because the surfaces oxidize very quickly. Any runoff from the surfaces could easily be neutralized by lining ditches with limestone or spraying a limestone slurry on the exposed rock faces.”
For years, regulatory officials working in other agencies have expressed doubts about the need to widen Needmore Road.
A July 22, 2000, memorandum sums up the concerns:
“The general consensus from the agencies is that the need for the project is weak. The environmental impacts outweigh any benefit from improving the road other than paving in place. The very low traffic volumes do not suggest that this road needs to be improved at all. NCDOT will have to produce a stronger need for the project and alternatives that fit that need in order for the agencies to reach concurrence.”
Despite these concerns, the project proposal survived. And, in the last few years, the transportation department deliberately tweaked the language it used when discussing Needmore Road. Setzer led the charge.
“Per your request, I have reviewed the Dec. 7, 2001, document and have the following comments and suggestions,” Setzer wrote in a Feb. 4, 2002, email to Karen Capps, who works in the project development branch of the department.
“I agree that one of the needs of the project is to help reduce sedimentation, but it is really a secondary benefit of the project and should be included further down. I suggest beginning this segment with purpose (not need). The purpose of this project is to enhance the quality of travel for the current users of the road. The need is to provide a safe and well-maintained road that protects/and or improves the natural resources.”
And, in another email, Setzer wrote: “The more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the primary purpose and need being stated as to reduce sedimentation. I am very concerned that if concurrence is reached under that stated purpose, the agencies will use it against DOT to argue for paving as it is.”
Capps responded, “Joel, you have a very good point. Let me see if I can rearrange that statement some. I’m sure there are other issues that will try to surface, but my plan is to stick to purpose and need and get past this point …”
Setzer also attempted to fine-tune the number of people who could potentially benefit.
“I also recommend changing the designation of the road from ‘local rural route between Franklin, N.C. to Bryson City, N.C.’ to ‘local rural route between Macon County and western Swain County and Graham County,” Setzer wrote to Capps.
Questions about why Needmore Road needed such extensive work also seemed to have been raised internally within the transportation department.
In a memorandum to Carl Young, project engineer for the planning and environmental branch, Setzer wrote:
“At our meeting, you asked for justification for widening Needmore Road prior to paving instead of paving the existing cross section …
“The motivations and thoughts behind these policies and minimum standards are safety issues, maintenance issues, and liability issues. The department of transportation is obligated to improving roads to a safe and serviceable level. Paving Needmore Road to lesser than minimum standards will create hazards to the traveling public as well as the natural environment. It will also increase future maintenance costs.”
As late as April of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Office expressed doubts.
“In summary, EPA continues to have substantial environmental concerns regarding the recommended alternative as well as the other paving options. There is insufficient traffic volume on this rural roadway to substantiate the potential long-term adverse environmental impacts to the Little Tennessee River, the Tellico Valley Historic District and the Needmore tract.”
Dorothy and Steve Poole are among the few who live along a 3.3-mile stretch of Needmore Road the state Department of Transportation wants to widen and pave.
“I agree with the people who want to keep it beautiful,” Dorothy Poole said. “But the road has safety issues.”
Her husband, speaking at an information session held in Franklin last week, told the 30 or so people there that he, his wife and their neighbors simply want the same consideration other parts of the Macon-Swain gravel road received.
Care. Pavement. Safe shoulders. Pullouts, if needed.
Others at the session, sponsored by Western North Carolina Alliance, a regional environmental group headquartered in Asheville, argued the state’s plan is too extensive. The transportation department engineers targeted the most expensive option, they said, because these are men who like building roads. So they failed to adequately study other options.
If built as proposed, the gravel section of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet, with up to another 14 feet for shoulders.
Needmore Road runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. A coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the tract from development some eight years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.
The transportation department held a public hearing in Swain County on the paving proposal this week. Macon County commissioners have requested a second public hearing be held in their county.
The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the Little Tennessee Watershed Association says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost. Still others have said it would run to $13.1 million.
“I think they are playing a little fast and loose with the language,” Bill McLarney, the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said of the transportation department’s proposal to go with the most extensive option.
“(It) would be disastrous,” McLarney said.
McLarney and other speakers said they want more study on the possible use of a soil binder, an alternative surfacing method that might reduce erosion without the high impacts of paving.
McLarney added, however, that there hasn’t been enough information provided for anyone to focus on a definitive answer at this juncture.
The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River, a Franklin based organization that works with property owners and others to protect upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys, has joined the Little Tennessee Watershed Association’s opposition to extensive work on Needmore Road. The land trust played an instrumental role in helping to protect the Needmore tract.
The transportation department is proposing to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. “Preferred Alternative E” would mean the road would be a minimum of 18-feet wide, and additional work would take place on the road’s shoulders. Completing this would require cutting through acidic rock. Here are other alternatives listed in the transportation department’s environmental assessment of the project:
• Alternative A, do nothing.
• Alternative B, upgrade drainage, replace drainage pipes, do grading improvements. Consider a soil binder/alternative surfacing method, to reduce erosion and dust by methods other than paving.
• Alternative C, pave existing road. Although the existing road generally varies from 14 to 19 feet wide, the maximum pavement width would be no wider than 18 feet.
• Alternative D, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus 4- to 7-foot shoulders. When encountering acidic rock, shoulders would be sacrificed to reduce footprint of road.
• Alternative E, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus shoulders. This would encroach into acidic rock.
The transportation department has pointed to traffic counts and safety issues as the primary reasons for paving Needmore Road. These numbers represent average daily traffic volume over the course of the year with typical traffic conditions.
Needmore Road, just north of Tellico Road intersection
For comparison, traffic counts on Old River Road in Swain County, also a two-lane gravel road used heavily by local residents.
Old River Road, SR 1336
Another two-lane gravel road in the region, the road leading to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sees slightly lower daily traffic counts, shown here as a daily average in summer months.
Source: Southwestern Development Commission and National Park Service.
An environmental group dedicated to protecting the Little Tennessee River has come out against a state proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road from one to two lanes.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association did not dismiss out-of-hand the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to make improvements to the road. The Franklin-based group, however, stated that it would not support a proposal calling for such extensive work.
Needmore Road is currently a rough, one-lane gravel road paralleling N.C. 28 on the opposite bank of the river in Macon and Swain counties. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association stated it “is in favor of a solution for Needmore Road that deals with safety and environmental problems that currently exist there, and wishes to participate with the DOT and the community in defining alternatives which will address both sets of problems while serving local transportation needs and contributing to the realization of the goals for which the Needmore Game Lands was created.”
The transportation department has set a Sept. 21 question-and-answer session, followed by a 7 p.m. public hearing, on the proposal. If built as proposed, 3.3 miles of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet. Additionally, construction work would take place on the roadway’s shoulders.
The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the environmental group says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association said the project was untenable because:
• “DOT states that the intent of the improvement is to ‘avoid or minimize adverse impacts’ to this outstanding stretch of river and rich game lands. Increased thru traffic and the consequences of major road construction through acidic rock will adversely impact the Needmore Game Lands and will alter the character of this recreational area which comprises and integral part of our local heritage.”
• “It is not consistent with the intent of the $17.5 million of public funds, including $7.5 million of DOT funds, invested to secure the Needmore Game Lands for recreational use and protection of local heritage.”
• “There are more immediate and pressing infrastructure and road-repair needs that should be addressed with such a large expenditure of public dollars.”
The environmental group’s position seems in line with statements previously made by Cheryl Taylor, leader of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation, to The Smoky Mountain News.
Taylor, a Swain County native and Needmore resident, said she believes Needmore Road “needs to see some improvements, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy.”
“There are impacts from that stretch of the river that come off of the Needmore Road,” said aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who is the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
McLarney has studied the upper watershed of the river for more than two decades. His work resulted in a state governor’s award in 1994 for water conversationist of the year, among other accolades.
The sedimentation is not just caused by rainfall, but even by wind, said McLarney, who sometimes uses snorkeling gear to examine the river.
“It is like somebody had put a thin layer of dust over the rocks,” he said of the bank’s appearance that is nearest Needmore Road.
Aquatic life there also has been adversely impacted.
“I have always been of the opinion [that] paving the Needmore Road would be a plus for the value of the river,” McLarney said.
But, the aquatic biologist said, he simply can’t support the option currently favored by the transportation department. Such work would increase traffic and detract from the recreational value, and diminish the importance of what took place when groups that have sometimes seemed at odds worked together.
“It would not have happened if local people … had not wanted to have it happen,” he said.”
One of the major players in that effort, the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee, has opted to stay out of this particular battle, at least for now. Sharon Taylor, land protection director for the group, said the land trust has not taken a position for or against the state’s proposal.
The land trust works with property owners and others to protect the “waters, forests, farms and heritage” of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys.
WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance Environmental Group.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16
WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.
WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.
WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starting at 7 p.m., Sept. 21.
WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.
Getting around on your own two feet in Sylva would be safer and easier if an ambitious, $4.5-million pedestrian plan becomes reality.
The plan — really, a wish list that would help keep the town moving now and in the future — is headed for review by the state Department of Transportation after being presented to civic leaders last week. The 20-year blueprint for getting from here to there safely calls for more sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights and a picnic area.
The state review is expected to take one to two months.
“I think this is the time to make the right choices for what we want in this community,” said John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company, between tending to customers at the popular West Main Street establishment. “If we build more roads, we are going to only have more cars. If we make Sylva pedestrian-friendly, we’ll have families and out-of-town visitors walking to see what the town offers.”
Compared to many towns, Sylva is in fairly decent shape, said the plan’s primary architect, Don Kostelec. The town used a $20,000 Transportation Department grant to hire the Asheville-based consultant, the senior transportation planner for Transpo Group. Kostelec partnered with a local steering committee made up of town officials, the county’s greenways coordinator and others.
The sidewalks in downtown are wide, Kostelec said, and there are already some crosswalks in place. Additionally, the missing link of a sidewalk between Sylva and its neighbor, Dillsboro, is in the works, and a new bridge now connects downtown with a town park and playground, which were once cut off by Scott’s Creek.
But long-term, Kostelec said, the goal of the plan is to transform Sylva into truly “a great, walkable downtown.”
The plan will take time, money and patience to realize. Many of the recommendations fall under long-term goals that could take up to 20 years to build.
“Where I’m stuck is, where do we start pursuing funding for some of these projects?” said town Commissioner Stacey Knotts of the overall plan.
Kostelec suggested the town seek grants to help pay for the projects.
“Having an adopted policy kind of puts you in line, as I understand it,” Mayor Maurice Moody said.
Some business owners, however, want to remain focused on parking issues before that happens.
“It’s pretty important that we get more parking along Main Street,” said Ben Seay, the owner of My Place restaurant, who is better known for his ownership of Uncle Bill’s Flea Market, located between Sylva and Bryson City. “That’s the bigger problem. We need parking.”
The plan doesn’t ignore parking altogether. It acknowledges there are issues with typical parking lot designs in that the “primary carriageway for vehicles in the parking lot happens to coincide with where the greatest numbers of pedestrians cross: directly in front of the main entrance.”
For the most part, however, the plan is focused on what happens to people once they get out of their cars.
To make the costs more palatable, the plan is broken down into bite-sized pieces. Here are some of the recommendations.
Short-terms goals, 5 to 7 years, $289,000:
• Along Grindstaff Road, adding a crosswalk at Mill Street and upgrading the railroad crossing for pedestrian access.
• Building a picnic area outside the Jackson County Administration Building.
• Build a sidewalk from Grindstaff Road to Jackson Plaza.
• Along N.C. 107, include crosswalk and pedestrian signals on Wal-Mart side to connect existing sidewalks and upgrade with future sidewalks along the highway.
• On Main and Mill streets, fill sidewalk gaps and upgrade existing sidewalks, and make pedestrian access to the courthouse via Keener from Main Street.
Mid-term goals, 5 to 12 years, $617,000:
• At the U.S. 23 Business and Skyland Drive intersection, adding crosswalks, installing “countdown” pedestrian signals and upgrading curb ramps to meet Americans with Disabilities Acts requirements.
• On Savannah Drive, from Keener to Cowee streets, improve the stairway to Mark Watson Park, fix problem areas on existing sidewalks.
Long-term goals, 20 years, $3.5 million:
• Sidewalks along U.S. 23 Business near the hospital.
• Sidewalks from N.C. 107 along the west side of Cope Creek Road.
Everything has fallen into place for a government-sponsored cleanup of the Rich Cove mudslide in Maggie Valley, an undertaking pegged at roughly $1.47 million.
The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed last week to foot 75 percent of the bill to stabilize the slide through the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which helps repair watersheds damaged by natural disasters.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has agreed to fund much of the remaining 25 percent local match since the slide affects a state-maintained road.
Maggie Valley’s town government has agreed to chip in $25,000 toward the local match, while Ghost Town in the Sky, a bankrupt amusement park where the slide originated, has volunteered $25,000 as well, but possibly in in-kind services rather than cash.
Town officials were driven by a sense of urgency to lock down funding for the cleanup since a large part of the mountainside remains unstable and threatens an even worse slide.
“I don’t think we have a choice but to do it,” said Maggie Valley Alderwoman Saralyn Price. “Because I feel like it’s a safety issue.”
At first, the town was at a loss for how it’d come up with the local match, which under current estimates comes to $334,000. Maggie Valley could hardly afford the whole amount by itself.
The town asked county leaders for help, but they balked at the idea of committing tax dollars to fix a slide that originated on private property — even though the property owner is in bankruptcy with a long trail of debt and was unable to pay up, either.
In the end, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire and N.C. Sen. Joe Sam Queen stepped in, teaming up to secure emergency funding from the N.C. DOT.
“We realize the dire circumstances those people who use Rich Cove Road were in,” said Haire. “I’m certainly glad Sen. Queen and I could do all we could to help out.”
Alderman Scott Pauley said Friday he was disappointed in the county board for not pitching in.
“We’ve got county residents and town residents that are losing sleep every night and haven’t slept since the slide,” said Pauley.
Pauley called the town’s contribution of $25,000 “a small, small cost to get this done.”
Town Manager Tim Barth said the town had to take action because it was unrealistic to expect Ghost Town to foot the bill.
“The reality is Ghost Town is in bankruptcy,” said Barth. “I know that they don’t have $334,500, so there’s no point in forcing them to pay because they won’t.”
However, Barth and Pauley have not ruled out the possibility of suing Ghost Town to be reimbursed. For now, Pauley said the focus is on getting the cleanup going.
“Anything after that is going to have to be for a later date,” said Pauley.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said he hopes to pay the company’s share of the cleanup cost by contributing work from Ghost Town’s engineer.
“We want to make sure that he’s involved completely,” Shiver said.
Shiver also pointed out that Ghost Town has already cooperated with NCDOT, and state and local agencies to help study the slide and facilitate cleanup.
According to Shiver, the economic importance of Ghost Town to Maggie Valley “far outweighs” the government’s investment to repair the slide.
“There are issues that we all must be a part of the solution,” said Shiver. “This is one of them.”